SSTN Interviews Joan Ryan
Today we are here with Joan Ryan, author of Intangibles: Unlocking the Science and Soul of Team Chemistry; Molina: The Story of the Father Who Raised An Unlikely Baseball Dynasty; Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters, and more. She was a sports columnist for more than two decades in San Francisco, and for the last 13 years has served as the media consultant for the San Francisco Giants.
Joan, it is great to have this opportunity to talk to you. Thanks for coming to Start Spreading the News.
Can you please tell us about your book Intangibles.
It was driven as most good stories are by a question, and for me it was three questions. One was in the wake of Sabermetrics and Moneyball… I’m the media consultant for the San Francisco Giants so I saw firsthand the transition the front office made to data, analytics, and creating their strategy and valuing players according to all the data. People were moving away from team chemistry and looking at it as this myth that we look back on in retrospect — you know, some scrappy underdog team that all have beards and funny handshakes and they win. So all of a sudden people say they have team chemistry. But I had covered enough teams, and I had been around the Giants long enough that sure seemed like there was team chemistry going on. So it made me ask the questions: Does team chemistry exist? If it exists, what is it? And then, how does it affect performance — because why even talk about it if it doesn’t affect performance?
The book is a journey. Early on, I came to realize – after trying and failing – that team chemistry can’t be measured in the way hitting, fielding, pitching are. So I couldn’t prove it existed through mathematics. But could science prove it?
The answer was yes. Neuroscience, evolutionary biology and other science disciplines provide reams of evidence of how profoundly human being affect not only one another’s moods and mindsets but heart rate, hormones – basically everything! Then the biggest challenge was connecting it to performance. How does the fact that we have trust with each other, we have a bond with each other… how does that physiologically lead to higher performance?
And that’s what the book does. It does prove, and show, what team chemistry is and how it enhances performance.
Which is fascinating. I have to agree, I believe there is team chemistry, and have seen it myself as an athlete and coach, even in recreation leagues, as well as even in schools and classrooms where you can have positive environments and negative environments. Do you believe that the chemistry you found in sports, specifically with the Giants, that there is something there for people to learn from to replicate it in their own businesses or industries?
You can even find it in your own family. Any group is still made up of human beings. What I learned in my research is that researching team chemistry is basically researching human nature.
So you go back to the beginnings of human beings. Tribalism is the most deeply rooted human behavior. Our brains are wired to be tribal. Over three million years of evolution, our brains have quadrupled in size – and we think it’s about our intellect, and, of course that is part of it. But our brains quadrupled in size to accommodate all the social wiring. It’s the social wiring that has kept us alive.
Think about it: What is the worst punishment throughout history? Banishment. Solitary confinement. We cannot be alone. I remember re-watching Castaway with Tom Hanks as I was researching this and seeing that he was able to stay sane and alive on the desert island by himself because he created a companion out a volleyball he named Wilson. And as viewers, we bought it. It made sense to our tribal brains.
That’s who we are as human beings. Whether you are in a business or a classroom, if you have a group of people with a shared purpose and goal, you have the potential to have team chemistry. Good, or bad, of course. But you can have chemistry in any group. Sports is the easiest to see how it plays out because we witness it it plays out right in front of us.
How does the leader help create that chemistry?
Chemistry emerges from a healthy culture. Leaders are the key creators, the key architects, of a healthy culture. A healthy culture is a trusting culture. A healthy culture is one in which the values and principles are clear and constantly reinforced. The members of the culture hold each other accountable for them.
Look at any sports team with good chemistry. Every player who walks into that clubhouse and on to that field knows the values and principles. They know what is expected of them.
And, of course there are the leaders — the veteran players — who carry the culture and pass this down to the young guys and the new guys: We play hard. We play selflessly. We’re resilient. We persist. And we care about each other. We actually care about each other as human beings, not just as players.
The Yankees had the Core Four. They passed it down. It also comes from the front office and the manager.
It comes down to trust. It has to be a culture of trust. You cannot have team chemistry without a culture of trust.
This is fantastic. You are speaking my language. I hope this is the way I lead. I want to shift gears here though, for a moment. You also wrote about the Molinas and the culture that was created in that family – coming from the father, Benjamin Molina Santana, who raised the greatest catching dynasty in baseball history.
Is there a connection between Benjamin Molina’s fatherhood and the conclusions that you found in Intangibles?
That’s a great question. I have never been asked that before!
The father was a leader. He created a culture within that family. He also created that culture with every team he ever coached. The basis of all of this was trust:
We trust each other to show up.
We trust each other to be prepared.
We trust each other to play as hard as we can.
We trust each other to lift each of us up and never criticize.
Because of all of this, there’s a willingness to come together.
And from there, it builds up the team. If he Benjamin had to come down hard on a kid, that player knew it came from a place of good intention. Benjamin would never say anything to a kid except to help that kid play better. That was it. And that went down to his three sons, all catchers.
The catcher is the care-taker. He is the dad, if you will, on the field. The guy who slings his arm around your shoulder and tells you it’s going to be okay. The psychologist.
Each one of those guys changed the teams they were on.
I got to know Bengie because he was on the Giants when I became the team’s media consultant. I watched him, and talked with him a lot because we wrote a blog together (the book grew out of the blog). And I watched him as he mentored Buster Posey who was poised to, and did, take his job. Bengie was the most generous, giving, cheerleader for Buster Posey even though he would eventually be traded away. It broke his heart to be traded from the Giants, but that’s what happened.
Bengie won the award with the Giants that they give to the grittiest player, the most selfless player. He won that two years and he was only a Giant for three.
He was the glue guy. And he learned that from his father.
You are obviously a pioneer. One of the very first women sports columnists. I am going to ask you to not be modest as you answer this question. You are a pioneer, you set the path for many many people who came after you. How does it feel to be a pioneer? We don’t get the chance too often to talk to a real-life pioneer. What’s that like?
Well, you have to live long enough!
I don’t know too many pioneers who set out to be that – you sort of just fall into it. I didn’t set out to be a sportswriter. Only when I became one did I realize that there were not a whole lot of women around. Dealing with some of the bullies, especially in that era, we had to put up with a lot. It isn’t as harsh for women today, which makes me very happy.
It feels great to have done something that has a lasting impact — and an important impact because we know this goes way beyond sports. What happens in sports then becomes normalized. We see many more women sportscasters, in media, and in front offices. It only gets normalized by numbers – by being able to see it.
Yes, but there needed to be a pioneer, like you, and others, to do it…to get through the challenges, and do it well to make it become something that is normal now. Others see this and then say, “I can too.”
And…earning the respect of the people in the industry – the players, front office, etc.
As women we were assumed to know nothing. We had to prove that we did. We had to earn the respect. You have to be totally above reproach. If you slip up, it’s not just your career, it’s the people behind you.
Yes, I am proud of being a pioneer.
Let’s do some fun questions here. Some short answers. What was the best World Series you ever covered?
1989 with the earthquake between the A’s and the Giants. I covered both teams, but that 1989 Giants team is my favorite of all time. There were all these factions in the clubhouse, but they all came together. The loved each other. They are the team that started me on the journey to write Intangibles. I went to their reunion twenty years after that World Series (which the Giants lost), and you could still see it – the spark in their eyes, the tone of their voices…the way they interacted: They still loved each other.
The A’s team was also so fascinating. And the earthquake. That was a memorable and terrifying night.
You have also done some championship fights. What was the best fight you ever covered?
Sugar Ray Leonard against Marvin Hagler. 1987. Hagler was favored to win. Sugar Ray was coming back. He had the eye thing. There were a lot of reasons he couldn’t win. Hagler was loved too, but you slowly heard and saw it shift… the crowd started going for Sugar Ray. He had his game plan down pat. And he was so disciplined. You even saw it in Hagler’s eyes. You saw and felt the energy shift in the arena as people began to realize that Ray Leonard was going to win it. You get to watch it as a reporter from the fourth row and you just get to be part of this great event – two men battling against each other – so much at stake.
This was a controversial decision, as I recall. I know Sugar Ray won the fight, but from your eyes, who won?
Ray, absolutely. He won it legitimately.
Favorite Super Bowl?
The 49’ers against the Dolphins. That was 1985. It was the first time I ever went to San Francisco. I was working for the Orlando Sentinel at the time. I was sent out to cover the game and I fell in love with the city. I knew I would have to live here. I couldn’t believe there was a place this wonderful on earth. This is my home. I knew it right away.
To conclude, please tell us about Little Girls in Pretty Boxes.
That was my most successful book. That book is now in its third edition with updates. It was chosen by Sports Illustrated as one of the best sports books of all time.
It was my first book, and suddenly I’m on Oprah and 60 Minutes. I didn’t have to do anything to get publicity. It all seemed so easy. And, of course, it has never been like that since!
It was certainly the most impactful book I’ll ever write.
Joan, thank you so very much. This was fantastic and so much fun. I cannot thank you enough. I wish you only success going forward – and always.